April 05, 2020
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Route To Suicide?

The defence ministry deals a blow to army efforts in the Northeast by giving gun-runners free passage

Route To Suicide?

IS the Ministry of Defence (mod), so used to blaming the unrest in the Northeast on the foreign hand, itself contributing to the strife? Otherwise, why did the then defence secretary, Ajit Kumar, send an order to the three service chiefs on July 27, 1998, specifically asking them not to take action against illegal gun-running operations in the Andamans? That too when there are intelligence reports that arms dealers have stepped up their supply to insurgent groups, including the ulfa and the nscn in the Northeast; and to Burmese rebels fighting the military regime in Yangon. Besides destabilising an already volatile region, the government circular has totally frustrated the Indian security forces fighting insurgency.

The controversial order is, in effect, asking the defence forces to ignore whatever tip-off it receives about the movement of illegal arms consignments, which includes sophisticated AK series rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, night vision fitted rifles and hand grenades. Kumar wrote the letter apparently under the instructions of defence minister George Fernandes, whose sympathy for the pro-democracy movement in Burma is no secret. The army is upset over the fact that in his - and RAW'S - zeal to support the Burmese rebels, Fernandes is ignoring the dangers Indian army troops and civilians in the Northeast are being exposed to.

The defence minister's stance has also made the Burmese government very unhappy. A Burmese diplomat in the embassy in Delhi told Outlook: "On the one hand, New Delhi officially wants to increase military cooperation with us, and on the other, your defence minister goes and supports the anti-government forces in our country. How do you expect us to reconcile with this?"

The Indian army is equally indignant. Says a senior Indian army officer, dealing with counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast: "It is irritating and painful that we are losing men in the operations even as the decision-makers seem to be indirectly abetting the insurgents." The anger is understandable: over the last five years, at least 200 security personnel have lost their lives in the Northeast; last year, the toll touched 60. Hundreds of civilians have been killed. Over 25,000 troops are deployed in counter-insurgency operations; the cost of maintaining them is close to Rs 100 crore a year.

In this context, the mod directive and other instructions are puzzling. Consider this:

  • The services were specifically told not to take any action on a definite tip given by the Indian ambassador in Yangon regarding arms movement in mid-1998. Evidently, the Indian diplomat was informed about a big arms consignment coming from the Far East through the Andaman seas by the Myanmarese military authorities.
  • The Indian Military Intelligence, which also received a tip-off, was told to hold its horses while at least three arms consignments went through and were received by militant groups in the Northeast and Burma between August 1998 and now.
  • Many more consignments, on which there were no intelligence reports, have passed through.
  • Arms-running through the sea off the Andamans, which had been reduced to a trickle in 1995-1996, has increased manifold.
  • According to an US Intelligence report on the ltte, the sea route from the golden triangle to Myanmar is a key conduit for arms and narcotics. Almost 80 per cent of the heroin in the world market is channellised through this route.

    Most of the sophisticated weapons in the hands of various insurgent groups can be traced to the Far East markets. The narco-arms dealers obviously have a free run and easy access to this arms bazar. For instance, most of the arms consignments, which take the sea route, can be intercepted on the high seas off the Andamans, as the successful tri-services Operation Leech conducted in February 1998 showed.

    In that operation, security forces killed six gun-runners, arrested 73 others and seized a huge consignment of arms, including 140 AK series rifles and assorted ammunition. The end-users of this particular consignment were mainly three major groups, two in the Northeast and one in Myanmar - the banned National Socialist Council of Nagaland (nscn), the All Tripura Tigers Force (attf) and the Chin National Army in Myanmar.

    The successful operation convinced the defence services that a constant vigil along the high seas in Andamans would help them net more catches. So pleased were the services that, in a rather unusual move, a formal briefing was held for the press in Delhi where representatives of all the three forces were present. In May, defence forces intercepted two more Thai trawlers near Narcodam Island and seized a 50 kg consignment of heroin along with an unspecified number of guns and assorted ammunition. At last, it appeared that the coordination between the three services and the new-found cooperation between India and Myanmar were bearing fruit.

    Officially, New Delhi has been working hard at building good relations with the military regime in Yangon for the last four years. The two armies have launched joint operations to check insurgency - in April 1995, they undertook Operation Golden Bird on the Manipur-Myanmar border where at least 40 insurgents belonging to various militant groups were killed; a huge cache of arms recovered. Joint operations was the new mantra.

    THIS was possible after years of lobbying by ground officials who pressed for steps to cut off arms to the Northeast rebels. Lt. Gen. S.S. Grewal, the then commander of an Army Corps entrusted with counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura, told his higher-ups in mid-1996: "The militants find sustenance in the arms that they get from groups like the Khmer Rouge in the Far East. If these arms are not allowed to come in, many of these groups will be weakened." His counterpart in the Tezpur-based Corps, Lt. Gen. R.K. Sawhney, who headed the Unified Command set up in Assam to tackle insurgency for over two years, spouted similar views at a press conference in October 1997: "The militants in the Northeast and in Myanmar, actively aided by the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), are getting their arms supply from the flourishing arms market in the Far East.

    Everything was going well till the Myanmarese realised in late 98 the futility of dealing with the mod. As soon as they realised the raksha mantri's inclination, the Myanmarese became cool towards any proposal for closer military cooperation, a senior army official told Outlook. "They tell us 'your defence minister is hand-in-glove with the opponents of our government and you expect us to cooperate with you'. We have no answer." Adds an army officer: "People in politics think fishing in troubled waters in the neighbourhood is a good policy. But in the long run, this attitude goes against the national interest."

    Another Intelligence official in Delhi told Outlook: "Nobody is questioning the defence minister's integrity or patriotism but when he takes up causes that are not wholly consistent with the national interest, it becomes a serious matter." Neither Fernandes nor defence secretary T.R. Prasad responded to Outlook's repeated queries on the subject over the whole of last week - till 11.30 pm Friday.

    There is, of course, another angle to the Operation Leech affair and the subsequent mod clampdown. Apparently, that particular arms consignment was initiated by raw, which is known to aid and abet anti-government forces in neighbouring countries. raw procured the consignment for the Chin National army and the Khaplang faction of the nscn. It's objective was two-fold: to prop up the Chin National Army and to help the Khaplang group. But why did raw want to assist the Khaplang group? That isn't clear.

    The tri-services operation clearly caught raw unawares. Once the raw angle came to light, there was a huge ruckus in government circles. The defence services were livid that raw was acting against national interests; raw was unrepentant. Following the goof-up, several high-level meetings, chaired by Union home secretary B.P. Singh and attended by top IB, raw and defence officials, tried to make sense out of the confusion but failed to come up with any unanimous future course of action.

    For the armed forces, the mod's constant interference - and the revelation about raw - was the last straw. The services top brass raised the point with George Fernandes, but the defence minister has been unresponsive. He, of course, has his own agenda, being openly supportive of anti-government forces in Myanmar. Initially, for our men in fatigues, Fernandes came as a breath of fresh air after a stream of clueless defence ministers. He took a keen interest in the welfare of the troops; and kept himself abreast of ground realities. His well-publicised Siachen trips, packing off bureaucrats to the glacier to experience life first hand, sent positive signals. But his concern for the troops was overshadowed by his penchant for taking up causes that seemed totally out of sync with the national policy.

    As for the Myanmarese rebels, the soft stand taken by the mod could not have come at a better time. In Bangkok, intelligence sources are aware of the attempts by the Khmer Rouge to make an arms sale to the rebels. A Cambodian official, requesting anonymity, told Outlook: "Fifty per cent of the Khmer Rouge's stockpile is kept in Thailand and the rest in Cambodia. Enter the Northeast rebels. Aided by the ltte, which had established links with the nscn and ulfa in the early 90s, Northeast insurgents went on a shopping spree. Rebels of the Chin National Army also joined in. It took some time to work out the modalities - the route, delivery and payments - before the arms began to flow. The ltte, with its expertise in high seas operations, helps in transporting the arms up to the ports of Cox's Bazar and Chittagong in Bangladesh.

    Along with the weapons, heroin from the Golden Triangle is also shipped to Myanmar through the sea route. The key drug trail, however, remains the overland route from the Golden Triangle, stretching up to the Northeast. At Cox's Bazar, the liaison point, the arms consignments are broken up into small caches to be carried by three different routes. Part of it goes to the Chin rebels and the rest to the Northeast. According to army sources, the best chance to intercept arms is on the high seas as Operation Leech showed.

    But that was not to be. Within four months of the operation, the mod declared a ceasefire on gun-runners. As a senior army officer puts it: "The babus want us to take prior permission from them before we act on a hot tip. You think the militants will wait before the file is put up to the JS (joint secretary), who will in turn put it up to the defence secretary. And then it will go to the RM (raksha mantri). By the time it comes back to us, it would be over a month. By that time, the consignment would have already reached the destination."

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